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Nonprofit Brings Free Dental, Medical Clinic to Humboldt 

Two-day event will give free care to hundreds, no questions asked

click to enlarge The nonprofit California CareForce will host a no-cost medical, dental and vision clinic, like the one pictured here, in Eureka on July 12 and July 13.

Credit: California CareForce

The nonprofit California CareForce will host a no-cost medical, dental and vision clinic, like the one pictured here, in Eureka on July 12 and July 13.

Tom Lewis has been a dentist for more than 50 years and has seen countless patients, but that one still stands out in his mind.

The man in his mid-40s showed up first thing in the morning at the clinic in Sacramento with his two teenage daughters. A contractor and single father, the man said he'd paid for his daughters' dental care out of pocket but couldn't afford his own, which was fine until one tooth started hurting — aching at first, then becoming an ever-present pain that was "killing him." Lewis said he was serving as the triage dentist at intake and quickly identified the problem, said they could get it out quickly and told the man to stand by for an extraction, which Lewis later performed himself and said went "uneventfully."

So, it was with some surprise when, hours and hours later, Lewis was leaving the clinic and walking out to his car after nightfall and heard someone screaming at him, "Dr. Lewis! Dr. Lewis!"

"He just screams at me and comes running over," Lewis says, adding he was a bit alarmed at first. "He just says, 'I'm out of pain. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it. And then he started crying."

Lewis pauses for a moment, thinking of that free-care clinic he volunteered at that treated 1,800 patients in two days in Sacramento, as well as the one he's spearheaded bringing to Eureka on July 12 and July 13.

"That's a demonstration of the need and the gratitude," Lewis says.

Formed about a decade ago as the charitable arm of the California Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, California CareForce has just three paid employees but depends on a web of volunteer healthcare professionals and community leaders to put on no-cost healthcare clinics throughout the state. The nonprofit used $2 million to $3 million in seed money to purchase a host of medical, dental and eye-care equipment it uses to outfit four free clinics annually held throughout the state, which are then staffed by local general and professional volunteers, who do everything from direct parking and check in patients to extracting teeth and doing physical exams.

Lewis, who practiced dentistry in Humboldt County from 1980 to 1996, says he began volunteering with the group in Roseville and found the work so rewarding he wound up on its board of directors. When he relocated back to Humboldt in 2020, it was with plans to bring a no-cost clinic to the area, where he says simply, "The need is huge."

After getting the OK from the rest of the CareForce board, Lewis said he began raising money locally, hitting up the medical and dental societies, speaking at Rotary clubs and successfully getting grants from the health department and the Humboldt Area Foundation. In total, Lewis says he helped raise $75,000 that will be used to rent out the Adorni Center for two days, transport all CareForce's equipment here in an 18-wheel truck and pay for supplies. He says organizers hope the clinic will serve at least 600 patients over its two days.

In a presentation to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors earlier this year, California CareForce Executive Director Cyndi Ankiewicz said the clinic is aimed to provide patients with dental treatments, basic medical care and vision screenings, with eyeglasses prepared on site. Additionally, she said they hope to coordinate "wrap-around" services, like mammography and chiropractic care.

She stressed that a basic CareForce principle is that, "Everyone, regardless of background or ability to pay, deserves access to quality healthcare." She said patients will not be asked about their insurance coverage or to show their identification.

"All services are provided at no cost to all patients," she said, adding that there are no restrictions based on income, age or immigration status, and that no one will be asked about their immigration status or insurance coverage. "We don't ask any of those things. None of them actually matters to us. We just want to make sure they receive services."

Lewis says the need for dental care is acute throughout the country, but there are also indications it is especially dire in Humboldt County.

A 2018 oral health needs assessment prepared by the California Center for Rural Policy at then-Humboldt State University found the county simply does not have enough providers that accept Denti-Cal to accommodate the more than 51,000 residents enrolled in the program locally. Further, the report found local residents are visiting emergency rooms for dental conditions at a higher rate than the rest of California, with residents aged 18 to 34 doing so at a rate four times higher than the rest of the state. Additionally, the report noted, more than two-thirds of county residents don't have access to fluoridated water, while one in four local kids enters Kindergarten with untreated tooth decay.

Lewis, who describes himself as "mostly retired," says the tremendous need is why he's dedicated himself to volunteering and gifting his services in recent years.

"As I retired, I thought, 'I'm healthy, I know the need, I've got this skill,' and I felt morally obligated to keep giving back," he says. "The need is there, I can help, so why not?

Lewis says he's recruited a handful of dentists to volunteer for the clinic — saying he went door-to-door with brochures to local practices — as well as a few dental hygienists, though there's room for more. Additionally, he's still looking for some physicians to fill shifts, and needs about 10 or 15 more general volunteers for each day at the clinic. (Those interested can sign up to volunteer at californiacareforce.org.)

The clinic will be open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on July 12 and July 13, and patients will be seen on a first come, first served basis as capacity allows. The Adorni Center parking lot (1011 Waterfront Drive in Eureka) will open at 5:30 a.m., and patients are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, food, water and be prepared for long waits. Ankiewicz said special priority will be given to military veterans.

Lewis says at other clinics he's seen folks arrive the evening before with sleeping bags to set up on the sidewalks out front.

"The need is so desperate that people will do that," he says, adding that itself is an indictment of our current system. "Healthcare should be everybody's right. Education, fire protection, police protection and universal healthcare, including dental, should be fundamental."

According to Ankiewicz, efforts will be made to connect patients with permanent providers, whether primary care physicians or dental clinics, so they can continue receiving regular services.

"We know there's a huge need there and we're happy that we're finally going to be able to get to Humboldt County to do this," she said, adding there's also still a need for in-kind donations, everything from food for volunteers to an ambulance service to stand by in case of medical emergencies, and that anyone interested in donating should visit the website for instructions how to do so.

Lewis, for his part, says a lot of work has gone into organizing this free clinic, but he hopes the two-day event is more a beginning than a culmination.

"I have a vision," he says, "and I'd like this to be an annual event."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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